There are as many perspectives of a city as there are people living in it and, in the case of Glasgow with more than 600,000 inhabitants, this is only one of them. It is a fond portrait of a love affair that has developed into a serious relationship over a decade. Now that the honeymoon period is over, the flaws and failings have become more apparent but, as in any good relationship, open discussion and constructive criticism can help to ensure a happy future.
Lying just inland from the West coast of Scotland and bisected by water from the Firth of Clyde, Glasgow is a tidal city, with a regular ebb and flow of traffic on the motorway that arcs around its centre every weekday morning and evening. Once the second city, founded on the shipbuilding industry, it now boasts the UK’s three poorest areas and lowest life expectancy.(1) The daily workings and decorative touches of Glasgow are administered by a cumbersome city council whose hopes that its economic problems will be solved by attracting ever-increasing numbers of visitors (2) continue to be thwarted by Edinburgh, its regal cousin, forty-five minutes away. As the next move in the tourist war, the first of what is likely to be an annual visual arts festival is being staged in Glasgow in April, which will bring together many of the individuals, organisations and groups mentioned here.(3)
Beneath the veneer of civic respectability and rarely adhering to the nine-to-five pattern of commuters, there exists in Glasgow a shape-shifting group of individuals and clusters – usually with no more than one degree of separation between them – of artists, musicians and writers. This creative group has reached critical mass, (4) with people arriving (usually to study at Glasgow School of Art), and leaving, to visit other places, but often coming back. While this is by no means a closed system, protected from the forces that operate in broader society, it may be considered as a microcosm with economies, institutions, social interconnections and a momentum of its own.
There are those who like to claim that artistic developments form part of a continuum, an evolution in which one type of practice prompts the next, often defining itself as a reaction against the ‘generation’ that preceded it (the generational life-span of the microcosm being presumed to be no more than a decade). Recent accounts of Glasgow have charted a lineage from the ‘neoexpressionist’ painting of the 1980s via and against the 1990s ‘neoconceptualism’ of Environmental Art (5) graduates Christine Borland, Roderick Buchanan, Jacqueline Donachie, Douglas Gordon, Ross Sinclair et al. to today’s predominant trope of object-based formalism. Defined in a broader London context as ‘New Formalism’ (6) and reclaimed for Scotland as part of a project of ‘awkward authenticity’ with links to neoexpressionism,(7) this work places its emphasis firmly on aesthetics and libidinous pleasure. Where neoexpressionism and neoconceptualism could both be described as content-driven, New Formalism prioritises form over content. This prompted artist Nick Evans to ask ‘Why is it that whilst the world outside spirals in ever tighter circles of terror and repression, artists retreat further into a hermetic world of abstraction, formalism, deferred meanings and latent spiritualism?’ (8)
In order to understand the factors that have determined current artistic practice, it is necessary to examine what sustains and affects the microcosm. In a small community, if a particular kind of practice is supported over another, it can affect the kind of work being made and the public perception of it. And, as institutions and groups of people are able to influence this process more effectively than individuals, arguably the greatest shifts in practice and perception have been brought about through collective activity. So, what may begin with the knowing enjoyment of a finite number of people can easily grow into a style with which a city is synonymous.
In order to understand the present, a consideration of the recent past is inevitable. A decade ago, for example, it was possible to speak about a triumvirate of mutually-supportive organisations working together with the city’s artists to promote a dynamic perception of Glasgow internationally. Of these three organisations, the artist-run gallery Transmission, has remained the most consistent. Established in 1983 by a group of painters with nowhere to show their work, Transmission continues to be run on a voluntary basis by a rotating committee of five or six members. Pre-empting more established institutional programming, by being closer to the artistic community that comprises its membership, each exhibition represents the interests and affiliations of successive committees. Transmission has been run by people associated with each of the ‘movements’ described above and notable moments in its history have seen the inclusion of neoexpressionist painters in the inaugural exhibition, a one-person exhibition being offered to the godfather of conceptualism, Lawrence Weiner, by neoconceptualists in 1991 and a reintroduction of formalist concerns in exhibitions like ‘New Rose Hotel’ under the mid 1990s stewardship of Will Bradley and Toby Webster (who would go on to found the influential Modern Institute). (9)
Another venue with artist-initiated roots, the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) arose in 1992 from the Third Eye Centre, which was known for supporting artists at the start of their careers, for example through ‘New Image Glasgow’ in 1985 – which included the core group of neoexpressionist painters Stephen Campbell, Ken Currie, Peter Howson and Adrian Wiszniewski – and ‘Self Conscious State’, the first exhibition after graduation of Christine Borland, Roderick Buchanan and Douglas Gordon who would become associated with neoconceptual concerns. CCA continued for several years as the main point of institutional reference in the city centre for a growing community of artists and, in 1999, the centre was awarded £10.5 million National Lottery funding and closed for two years to be redeveloped as a plush new venue with a courtyard café, bar, cinema, bookshop and other multi-functional spaces. With the emphasis on accessibility, it was hoped that CCA would attract new audiences to contemporary art. However, with the gallery spaces now overwhelmed by its other functions and the attentions of its administrators directed towards sustaining the building in the face of huge overheads and the absence of concomitant funding increases, CCA has run the risk of disenfranchising local artists and audiences.
At the cornerstone of its new programme, CCA forged an association with London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts through its relaunch curator Vivienne Gaskin and the annual corporate-sponsored Beck’s Futures prize which, in its first five years of operation, has seen three Glasgow-based winners, two of whom (Toby Paterson and Rosalind Nashashibi) have gone on to undertake solo exhibitions at CCA. The current multi-layered exhibition by Michael Fullerton, one of the most interesting artists to graduate in the mid 1990s, weaves complexity through the relatively conventional means of portraiture combined with ephemeral silk screen prints and strategic objects. Imbued with violence, in barbed references to Fascism and anti-capitalist rioting, the exhibition resolutely distinguishes itself from the New Formalist debate, notably through the work Who Keeps the World, Both Old and New, in Pain or Pleasure? A 3D mock up of an illustration from the book Ocular Anatomy and Histology (Figure 39b, rods). Visualising the optical process, mild steel rods hang like a mobile from the high gallery ceiling, patchily coated in BASF Varichrome® ‘Purple Magic’ which is used to make magnetic tape, uniting sight and sound. When taken in the context of BASF’s dubious connections to the Nazi party through an American-funded cartel, this work transcends its formal properties. It is to be hoped that this ostensible commitment to the development of potentially contentious work by local artists at CCA will reverse the artistic perception, if not the fortunes, of the centre.
In 1990, Glasgow was awarded the questionable status of European Capital of Culture and a new venue opened its doors on the under-developed south side of the River Clyde. Established by the city council in a former tram shed, with two theatres and a main visual art space about half the size of a regulation football pitch, Tramway proudly describes itself as ‘Scotland’s most internationally acclaimed venue for contemporary visual and performing art. This reputation is founded upon our commitment to the presentation of the most innovative work by Scottish and international artists… Tramway is a unique place to produce and experience the best in contemporary art.’ For a time, this seemed to be true, with exhibitions by an emerging generation of local artists. Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho was commissioned by Nicola White in 1993, with Jacqueline Donachie’s Part Edit and Christine Borland’s From Life staged there the following year. In 1995, Gordon, Borland, Donachie and Buchanan were invited to curate the work of artists who had inspired them, which resulted in ‘Trust’, an exhibition that included international artists from Vito Acconci to Lawrence Weiner. In 1998, Tramway received National Lottery funding, reopening two years later to continue commissioning large-scale projects from local artists (such as Martin Boyce, Henry VIII’s Wives and Tatham & O’Sullivan) alongside international names (such as Pipilotti Rist and Monica Bonvicini) with budgets that consistently failed to measure up to its large-scale international ambitions.
In the late summer of 2003, however, the news broke that Glasgow City Council was supporting a further Lottery bid, for Scottish Ballet to redevelop Tramway as its new private headquarters, leading to its loss as a public venue for the arts. With hindsight, this move by Glasgow City Council is hardly surprising if taken together with the fact that those responsible for overseeing cultural policy in the city have consistently failed to develop a visual art policy – when, by their own admission, one was needed (10) – and continued to ignore international successes in the visual arts, preferring to isolate themselves from the contemporary in what can only be described as a gesture of anti-intellectualism. Charles Esche (former Visual Arts Officer of Tramway) recently admitted ‘The mistake that we made was not thinking enough about local politics […] we forgot to bring in people like the city council and the politicians. I guess as the one individual in all this directly employed by the council this was a bigger issue for me than anyone else’.(11) In what turned out to be a spectacular misjudgement on the part of the city council, the potential loss of Tramway as a venue provoked outrage amongst the artistic community and press alike (12) and, after much discussion, has led to assurances that the main visual art space will not be lost, although the terms for its future management and the function of the rest of the building have yet to be defined. The current exhibition at Tramway, by Glasgow-based artist Graham Fagen, a sparsely installed cultural commentary, was scheduled before this crisis arose and it remains to be seen what kind of programming will be in place in the future and whether the negligible commissioning budget will be increased. The Glasgow International Festival may be seen as an attempt on the part of the city council to placate the visual art community and latterly acknowledge its international importance after this debacle.
Broadly speaking, this remains the main institutional infrastructure for contemporary art in the city, with belated attempts being made by the council-run Gallery of Modern Art to rectify its almost total omission of the city’s contemporary artists from its collection. This situation is echoed by similar structures in Edinburgh and Dundee that tend towards showing more established artists as part of an international consensus. The infrastructure in Glasgow is supplemented by artist-friendly endeavours such as Project Room (run by artists), Intermedia (a space provided by Glasgow City Council for artists to produce work and publicise it themselves) and StreetLevel Photoworks (specialising in photography and new media).
At a national level, these institutions are presided over by the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), which disburses state funding to the arts on behalf of the Scottish Executive, a devolved government responsible for all but the most important issues, and synonymous with the neo-imperial policies of New Labour.(12) Where once it might have been possible to speak of a division between public and private interests, within the art microcosm as elsewhere, there has been a steady erosion of any distinction, with a mesh of interweaving solidarities ensuring that there is an ongoing symbiosis between the two realms. Interestingly, in addition to the association with Beck’s Bier at CCA, corporate sponsorship has begun to creep into Tramway, through the high-end insurance company Hiscox funding the annual Glasgow School of Art Masters of Fine Art exhibition over a three-year period. While private sponsorship in Glasgow is still much less established practice than in London, it is nonetheless significant that it is being used as a means of bridging the funding shortfall. (13)
Furthermore, in the UK, arts funding policy complements central governmental aims by instrumentalising art in ways which dovetail with the corporate world. This has seen public funds increasingly ring-fenced for priorities like social inclusion, a palliative that does nothing to address the inequalities of society, which has received substantial criticism from within the art sector:
premised on the top-down ‘democratisation’ of culture, a process aimed at engaging members of ‘excluded’ groups in historically privileged cultural arenas. Such a policy neither reforms the existing institutional framework of culture, nor reverses a process of damaging privatisation. Instead, it attempts to make the arts more accessible in order to adapt its target audiences to an increasingly deregulated labour market. (14)
It is important to note that this does not entail a nation state entirely subordinate to corporate interests; rather, ‘The illusion of a weakened state is the smokescreen thrown up by the designers of the “new order”. Margaret Thatcher concentrated executive power while claiming the opposite; Tony Blair has done the same. The European project is all about extending the frontiers of a “superstate”. Totalitarian China has embraced the ‘free’ market while consolidating its vast state apparatu’s’ (15)
The Scottish Executive is currently undergoing a major review of its cultural provision that is likely to see the replacement of the Scottish Arts Council with more centralised control and the loss of any semblance of arms’ length funding.(16) For the moment, though, the institutional infrastructure is central to SAC visual arts policy and it is here that it invests the majority of its inadequate funding (more than 93% of voted funds) with a tiny percentage of the visual art budget going directly to the research and development of artistic practice or to the grassroots organisations that do the most to support this practice.(17) The rationale behind this is that institutions indirectly support artists. However, a recent study, commissioned by the SAC, showed that 82% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year from their practice, with 28% earning nothing whatsoever (compared to average annual earnings in the UK in excess of £25,000).18 This disparity continues to be felt within the art microcosm and has had some significant repercussions. In 2001 the Scottish Artists’ Union was established along traditional trade union lines and aims to address such inequalities of income. In response to the threatened closure of Tramway and the Scottish Executive Cultural Commission, groups of artists and writers have formed, with the aim of giving creative people more of a voice in future policy-making and demanding better support for individual practitioners and grassroots organisations. (19)
There is a long history in Glasgow of artists pushing unsupportive institutions to the periphery of their loyalties, organising projects themselves and forming often nomadic organisations outside of the established institutions. This kind of practice is essentially social in nature and relies on close collaboration and solidarity in the face of adversity. Recent examples have included Switchspace, Market (both in the east of the city), MaryMary (where art and music evenings are organised in a private flat, currently moving from city centre to east end) and The Chateau (where the maverick wordsmiths Franz Ferdinand began their global rise to fame). In 1991, Glasgow-based artist Ross Sinclair noted that artist-led initiatives defined their own terms for how work should be made and shown and, particularly when occurring outside London, were most successful when dealing with a specifically local context rather than aspiring to adopt the language of the commodified centre:
When the context of art dissolves into the realm of formalism and the art world exclusively, it has relinquished much of its potential for social function. It loses an important dimension and diminishes from a potentially rounded, holistic art practice and becomes a two-dimensional veneer. Then its meaning and location exists primarily for the market and the cultural activity, Art, ceases to have a wider social function other than in matters of economics. (20)
Rather than countering the shift towards the private sector – through direct corporate intervention and attempts to fuel the private labour market – and rather than lobbying for increased funding to disseminate directly to artists and shore up flagging institutions, public funding bodies in the UK have responded by unequivocally placing the flourishing private market at the centre of the art system.(21) In Scotland, this has seen Arts Council funding being allocated to art fairs (22) and a ‘collecting initiative’ (23) (which has so far seen the production of the ‘How to Buy Art’ leaflet to engender a new art-buying public) and Glasgow City Council making the development of an art market one of its main objectives.(24) As a direct consequence of these policies, the 2004 Glasgow Art Fair included stands by many local grassroots organisations, including Market and Switchspace.(25) Lack of funding for travel means that attendance at art fairs is advocated by public funders for those artist-led initiatives wishing to broaden their networks and has been cited as the reason for Transmission taking part in the Frieze Art Fair in London, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Meanwhile, with negligible local investment in the research and development of artistic practice, public funding bodies continue to harness the international kudos of contemporary visual art, through ventures like the Glasgow International Festival and the Scottish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, supported by the Scottish Arts Council and British Council. (26)
Perhaps the most significant effect of these policies is the emergence of two commercial galleries for contemporary art. The first of these, the Modern Institute,(27) has become internationally successful in a relatively short space of time and receives ongoing funding from the SAC.(28) The gallery is synonymous with New Formalism, representing artists like Jim Lambie and Eva Rothschild who were involved in the seminal ‘Early One Morning’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.(29) The second gallery, recently established by Sorcha Dallas, has also shown a proclivity for formalism, through early projects by Craig Mulholland and Alex Frost. In addition to the personnel of these galleries being trained artists, a Transmission internship by Modern Institute co-founders Will Bradley and Toby Webster and the running of Switchspace (subsequently closed) by Sorcha Dallas, accounts for the goodwill of the artistic community towards these essentially commercial initiatives and lends their activities an added cachet in the marketplace. It is these commercial galleries, backed up by public funding initiatives, which have the highest profile outside Glasgow, and have led to the city being internationally known for the current predominance of formalist work. Whereas preceding generations of artists gestated at Transmission and matured in local public institutions like the Third Eye Centre before making their international debuts in kunsthalles and kunstvereins around Europe, artists from Glasgow are now more likely to make their first international appearance at art fairs, with their work being adjudged according to the logic of the marketplace. This reversal echoes the situation in America, described by neo-conservative Dave Hickey, where hapless public spaces exist to absorb the effluent of the dominant market. (30)
With an exponential increase in studio practice devoid of content, there would seem to be a causal link between an orientation towards the market and formal concerns being prioritised in emerging practice. One of the major pitfalls of this situation, as identified by both Ross Sinclair and Nick Evans, is that market-driven formalism generally mitigates against criticality at a time when it is needed most. This is not to say that public institutions or state funding, tainted with the ideology of the prevailing Government, offer artists any greater claim to autonomy than the private market. But, as seen in the current exhibitions of Michael Fullerton and Graham Fagen, there is still a greater freedom of form, subject matter and scope for experimentation and risk in the public realm than is normally permitted by the market.
It is clear that something must be done to address the inability of artists to generate a living wage from their practice. While a rush towards the market might appear to provide a short-term solution for a finite number of artists and a particular genre of work, what happens when the backlash against New Formalism takes hold, as it inevitably will? Signs of this are already visible in EAST, the exhibition of young artists held in Norwich. Last year, selected by the Modern Institute’s Toby Webster and Eva Rothschild, the exhibition was tightly curated in a way that consolidated New Formalism as the predominant style in the UK. This year, auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger will select the exhibition according to the following criteria:
EAST 05 will not be object based on principle … the art exhibition without the art.
EAST 05 is perceived by the selector Gustav Metzger as a vision of the world formed by artists and artists’ groups … dealing with crucial economic, political and ethical issues facing us all, artists are asked to look at the ‘extremes’ of our world … (31)
The debate about public versus private and the limitations of this bipolar system are by no means confined to Glasgow. What is clear is that either system alone, or a combination of the two, is insufficient to safeguard critical artistic practice. A new solution will need to be found that transcends the city limits.
Commissioned by IDEA Magazine, Romania, 2005.
1. For home-grown dissent, see Glasgow Autonomous Project http://glasgow-autonomy.org/
2. Recent attempts to boost the tourism industry in the city have led to an advertising campaign with the tagline Glasgow: Scotland with Style. http://www.seeglasgow.com/ For a critique of this approach and other pertinent issues see Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space paper http://www.glas-collective.com/
3 . Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art. See http://www.glasgowinternational.org/
4 . By 1998, an estimated 978 professional artists were based in the city according to figures in the Glasgow City Council’s ‘Glasgow Cultural Statistics Framework’. According to Scottish Artists’ Union figures, approximately 5,000 artists are currently practicing throughout Scotland.
5. Environmental Art is a department at Glasgow School of Art, with an emphasis on contextual practice, established in 1986 by David Harding in close discussion with students.
6. See, JJ Charlesworth ‘Not Neo but New’ in Art Monthly, no. 259, September, 2002. See Neil Mulholland, ‘Leaving Glasvegas’ in Matters, Summer 2003, issue 17, pp. 7-10.
7. Nick Evans, ‘Tired of the Soup du Jour? Some Problems with ‘New Formalism’’ in Variant, Volume 2, Number 16, Winter 2002, p. 37.
8. See Transmission (London: Black Dog, 2001).
9. See Glasgow City Council Cultural and Leisure Services, Visual Arts Best Value Review of January 2001.
10. Charles Esche in conversation with Sarah Lowndes in Social Sculpture: Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow, A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events since 1971 (Glasgow: StopStop, 2003). Pp. 164-165.
11. See http://www.sostramway.org.uk/
12. Control of the following is reserved by Government in London: constitutional matters, UK foreign policy, UK defence and national security, fiscal, economic and monetary System, immigration and nationality, energy: electricity, coal, gas and nuclear energy, common markets, trade and industry, including competition and customer protection, some aspects of transport, including railways, transport safety and regulation, employment legislation, social security, gambling and the National Lottery, data protection, abortion, human fertilisation and embryology, genetics, xenotransplantation and vivisection, equal opportunities.
13. Throughout the 1990s, multinational corporations intervened into public arts institutions in London, through sponsorship programmes and networking clubs. This move was, by and large, embraced by institutions whose ambitions had exceeded their budgets. This was well documented by Anthony Davies and Simon Ford in their trilogy of texts, Art Capital, Art Futures and Culture Clubs (see http://www.infopool.org.uk) and by Chin Tao-wu in her book Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s (London: Verso, 2002). However, as Anthony Davies recently documented (‘Basic Instinct: Trauma and Retrenchment 2000-04’ in Mute, issue 29, Winter 2004), corporate funding has been receding in the wake of the dot com implosion and global recession, with business investment in the arts falling from £134 million to £99 million between 1999/01 and 2001/02 and new initiatives will need to be found to fill the shortfall. Figures are taken from a survey by Arts & Business (see http://www.aandb.org.uk)
14. Cultural Policy Collective, Beyond Social Inclusion: Towards Cultural Democracy, 2004.
15. John Pilger, ‘The Great Game’ in New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002) p.119
16. See http://www.culturalcommission.org.uk
17. See http://www.scottisharts.org.uk/1/information/publications/1000358.aspx for 2004-2006 budgets. At the time of writing, rumour has it that smaller grants forming one of the last remaining lifelines for artists will be abolished by the Scottish Arts Council due to insufficient manpower in a depleted visual art department, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one. Grants to individual artists of up to £500 are made by Glasgow City Council. Budgets for 2000-01 showed that £12,000 was given to individual artists through this scheme.
18. Bonnar Keenlyside, Making Their Mark: An Audit of Visual Artists in Scotland (Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council, 2004).
19. See http://artfutures.net
20. Ross Sinclair, ‘Questions’ in the catalogue for Windfall, an artist-initiated exhibition at the Seamen’s Mission in Glasgow, 1991.
21. In England this has seen the publication of Taste Buds: How to Cultivate the Art Market (London: Arts Council England, October, 2004). This document examines how the art market could be better exploited, identifying a further 6.1 million potential collectors of contemporary art. In a final assimilation of public into private, the report identifies ‘subscription […] the process by which art is filtered and legitimised’ whereby ‘Networks of art world professionals, including academics, curators, dealers, critics, artists and buyers, provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist’s work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases. The value of an artist’s work increases in direct proportion to the subscription it attracts and sustains’.
22. £10,000 p.a. over the next three years.
23. £25,000 p.a. over the next three years.
24. See Glasgow City Council Cultural and Leisure Services, Visual Arts Best Value Review of January 2001.
25. Glasgow Art Fair (15-18 April, 2004), which costs Glasgow City Council upwards of £85,000 to stage, included Collective Gallery, The Embassy, EmergeD, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Lapland, Limousine Bull, Market Gallery, Switchspace and Volume.
26. In its inaugural year, 2003, the Scottish Pavilion featured the work of Glasgow-based artists Claire Barclay and Jim Lambie (both of whom appeared in ‘Early One Morning’) and Simon Starling. In 2005, Alex Pollard, Tatham & O’Sullivan and Cathy Wilkes have been selected to represent Scotland. In each case, the work has been claimed as part of the awkwardly authentic/New Formalist project, which essentially concurs with the market, with two of the three artists/groups of each year being represented by the Modern Institute.
27. Founded in 1998 by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster, the original ambition of undertaking public projects has largely given way to a more conventional commercial gallery with Webster as Director
28. Currently £50,000 p.a. rising steadily to £51,500 in 2006, which represents 1.3% of the total visual arts budget (£3,975,935 in 2006).
29. ‘Early One Morning’was at the Whitechapel Gallery, London 6 July-8 August.
30. See Dave Hickey, ‘The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market’ in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997), p. 65:
In the early seventies, however, as these ‘new’ practices began to lose steam in the natural course of things … they were adopted by a whole new set of venues, by museums, kunsthalles, and alternative spaces across the country, first as trendy, economical exhibitions fodder for the provinces, and then as ‘official, non-commercial, anti-art’ – as part of a puritanical, haut bourgeois, institutional reaction to the increasing ‘aesthetification’ of American commerce in general.
For a critique of ‘Hickey’s analysis of contemporary art [that] hinges on a mythic image of the market system which transforms the greed that drives the capitalist accumulation into desire; a natural and even emancipatory component of human subjectivity’ see Grant Kester, ‘The world he has lost: Dave Hickey’s beauty treatment’ in Variant, Volume 2, number 18, autumn 2003, pp. 11-12.